Dane Jensen shares powerful tactics for staying calm and confident in the face of pressure.
- The equation that explains why we feel pressure
- Why time management won’t solve your workload problems
- The questions that make us “good at pressure”
Dane Jensen is the CEO of Third Factor, an acclaimed speaker, an instructor at Queen’s University and the University of North Carolina, a regular contributor to Harvard Business Review, and the author of The Power of Pressure.
Dane oversees Third Factor’s delivery of leadership development programs to leading firms across North America including SAP, RBC, Uber, Twitter, the USGA, and others. He teaches in the Full-Time and Executive MBAs at Queen’s Smith School of Business in Canada and is Affiliate Faculty with UNC Executive Development at the Kenan-Flagler Business School in Chapel Hill.
In addition to his corporate work, Dane works extensively with athletes, coaches, leaders and Boards across Canada’s Olympic and Paralympic sport system to enhance National competitiveness. He has worked as an advisor to Senior Executives in 23 countries on 5 continents.
- Dane’s book: The Power of Pressue: Why Pressure Isn’t the Problem, It’s the Solution
- Dane’s company: ThirdFactor.com
- Dane’s website: DaneJensen.com
- Dane’s Twitter: @DaneJensen
- Book: The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism by Olivia Fox Cabane
- Book: Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
- Past episode: 653: Training Your Mind to Conquer Stress, Pressure, and Underperformance with Dr. Ellen Reed
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Dane, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.
Hey, thanks so much, Pete. It’s great to be here.
Okay, we’re talking about pressure, so I’m going to put some pressure on you right from the get-go, if I may, and say, Dane, I’d love for you to kick us off with a riveting and instructional story that tees up some of the concepts of your book The Power of Pressure: Why Pressure Isn’t the Problem, It’s the Solution.
Yeah, I think one of the beautiful things about how I wrote this book is it was all story-driven. I asked as many interesting people as I could find one question, which is, “What’s the most pressure you’ve ever been under?” And I found out that this question is kind of like a magic portal. Like, on the other side of this question, no matter who you asked this question of, there is a really, really interesting story.
And so, I’ll tell you a story about a woman named Jen, who is a manager at a government agency. And when I asked her about the most pressure she’d ever been under, she flashed back to this period of her career, where she was responsible for planning the communication of an organizational restructuring. And so, two agencies had been merged, everybody kind of knew they were going to be layoffs, there was going to be a restructuring, it had been a couple of months at this time, so nervous anticipation was building. And then, finally, the day arrived, this incredibly well-orchestrated day that Jen and her team had been working on for a couple of months.
And so, Jen’s morning was spent having four one-on-one conversations with people who are being let go, so a pretty tough morning. And then she raced across town to the conference center where they were about to kick off six simultaneous regional meetings where they were going to announce the strategy and the restructuring that was happening.
And so, she parks herself in the biggest region. About half the people are there in person, half of them are joining remotely through Zoom or by phone, and it is one minute to 1:00 p.m. when the meeting is going to kick off, and the AV fails completely. Nobody can dial in, nobody can hear, nobody can see. The regional president looks at Jen, because she’s the person who planned this. She looks around for an AV team, there was no AV team in the room.
She tears out of the room, down the hallway, and she decides to take a shortcut through a stairwell. She gets into the stairwell, the door closes behind her, and she hears a click. She runs over to the door, grabs it, locked. Looks down on her phone, she has no cell service because of the concrete walls. She is locked inside of a fire escape with no cell service and 600 people on the other side who were wondering if they still have jobs.
And I use this as a microcosm of when you ask people what’s the most pressure they’ve ever been under, you get an unbelievable range of life experiences. And so, the first insight for me from this is when you talk to Jen about what the moment was like of peak pressure, when she realized that the meeting was falling apart and she tore out of the room and was running towards the stairwell, she talks about how, and these are her words, “My focus narrowed to the point where I could not see what to do next. It was like my mind was racing but it wasn’t computing anything.”
And I think this, to me, is a wonderful kind of tee up for the problems of pressure. We’re going to talk about why pressure can be the solution but the real problem of pressure is when it gets incredibly intense, it actually shrinks our world dramatically. Our attention starts to tunnel. We can access less of our expertise. We can take in less information from the external environment. And so, this example, for me, really tees up what are we trying to solve for when it comes to pressure.
Yeah, that is powerful. And so, let’s talk about that problem and what it does to us. And you’ve got an interesting equation in terms of importance, uncertainty, and volume are components. How does this work in terms of…? Because I was thinking about your equation as you told that story, it’s like, “Okay, we got some importance. Okay, we got some uncertainty. Okay, we got a lot.” So, what is sort of that perfect storm, it’s like, “Yup, this is what pressure feels like and where it comes from”?
And this was the first mission in writing the book, was as I asked more and more people this question, I got totality of life itself back. We had lots of people talking about kind of, I guess, standard pressure moments – so, big presentations, a critical sales meeting, an entrance exam, a job interview – so that kind of stuff definitely came up.
But then we also had stories of people, a guy who went for a swim and, all of a sudden, realized he was too far from shore and the tide was going out, and he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to get back, people who were carrying demanding jobs while dealing with dying parents. So, one of my first tasks was to kind of look at this incredible range of human experience, and start to go, “Okay, what is similar across these very different experiences?” And I think that’s where the equation came from. It’s to say, “Okay, as different as these things are, when we talk about pressure, all high-pressure situations are characterized by some combination of three things.”
So, the first thing that has to be there for us to feel pressure, as humans, is importance. If what I’m doing doesn’t matter to me, if it’s not important, if the outcome doesn’t matter to me in some way, I’m not going to feel pressure. But importance alone doesn’t create pressure. We also need uncertainty because no matter how much something matters to me, if it’s certain, if the outcome is clear, it’s not really going to create that much pressure.
And so, we really, as human beings, where we start to feel the experience of pressure, which is really an internal experience, it’s a response to an external circumstance, we feel it at that intersection of, “Hey, this really matters to me, and I don’t know how it’s going to turn out.” And then volume really is the multiplier. So, it’s like, as human beings, yeah, we’ve had to exist in important and uncertain situations since the dawn of time. In the modern world, I think what creates the grind of pressure is just the sheer volume of tasks and decisions and distractions that kind of surround our important uncertain moments.
And so, these three things can combine in very different ways, Pete. So, Jen’s situation, for me, is a perfect example of what we talked about as peak pressure moments, which are like violent collisions of importance and uncertainty. Like, acutely important, “I’ve been working on this for months, the regional president is looking right at me, this is falling apart,” and tons of uncertainty.
There are other situations, when we talk about the long haul of pressure, or the grind, those tend to be less about like hugely important, highly uncertain, and more just about grinding volume, “I’m just carrying a ton of uncertainty through a long period of time, and it gets really heavy.” And a lot of the stories and experiences I heard from COVID, they tend to fall a little bit more onto that pattern of just constant uncertainty and just grinding volume. But those three things are what kind of combine to create pressure for us.
Okay. And so, that’s good to know right there. When I think about importance for a while, there are sometimes I feel pressure and it’s because of something is really important to me, and I realize there are many other people for whom this would not be a big deal and would not be important to them but it’s important to me. And it’s almost like I wish I cared less so there’d be less importance and I’d feel less pressure.
And so, Dane, I don’t know, I have a feeling it’s not the solutions you’re going to be putting forward. But I’ve been there, it’s like, “Ah, could I care about this a little bit less so I could feel less pressure?”
Yeah. Well, listen, man, I think you’re onto something there. Like, I think what I learned is that everyone of these parts of the equation – importance, uncertainty, and volume – they are all kind of double agents. Pressure itself is kind of a double agent, right? Where do more world records get set than anywhere else in sports? The Olympics, right, because there’s pressure. Pressure is energy. It actually can help and we know that pressure can also be dangerous if it’s left unchecked. It can lead to burnout and stress and all that stuff that we see in the growing conversation of workplace mental health.
So, I think all of these things, what’s interesting about them is it’s a little bit of a matter of dosage. So, importance, just to build off of what you’re talking about, we’ve heard for years, you got to start with why. You got to get really clear on why something matters to you, the purpose behind what you’re doing. And, actually, that is a really important part of the long haul of pressure. If I’m going through the grind of 12 really tough months, or raising a child, like I got to really have a line of sight to, “Why does this matter to me? How is this helping me grow? How is what I’m doing contributing? How is this bringing me closer to people that I care about?” the big stuff.
And, to your point, when we kind of cross from the long haul of pressure into these acute peak pressure moments, actually the issue typically isn’t that, “I don’t have a line of sight to my why. It’s like the why is crushing me. Like, I am just overwhelmed by how important this present…” So, one of the tools that I introduce in the book is this ability to kind of pivot a little bit.
So, if you take a very simple example that, hopefully, some of your listeners can relate to, if I’m prepping for a big presentation, let’s say it’s a sales presentation that I’ve got to give, I actually want to, during the preparation phase, consciously focus on importance. The fact that there’s a commission cheque at stake here, that this could be an input to an early promotion, that this is a good test of my abilities, that I can contribute revenue to the bonus, whatever it is that makes this matter to me.
When I’m about to step into the room and actually deliver that presentation, I have to consciously switch my attentional focus using one question, which is, “What is not at stake for me here? What are the important things in my life that will not change regardless of the outcome of this presentation? I want to focus on the fact that I’m still going to have a job, I’m still going to have the love of my friends and family, my colleagues will still respect me.”
Because those are the things, those unchanging things, that’s what frees me up to perform. If I carry the commission cheque and the early promotion, if I carry all that into the presentation, it’s going to be a disaster. So, you’re absolutely right, there are situations where the real question I want to be focused on is, “What makes this a little less important?” because often we get fixated and we expand the stakes mentally as we’re heading into those moments.
Well, yeah, that’s beautiful so much there in terms of the distinction between preparation and performance, like play the game a little bit differently. And then we have the choice to dial it up or down in terms of onboard and I don’t feel like preparing well. This commission cheque is at stake. We increase the importance and the pressure, versus, “I’m freaking out a little bit. It’s the big moment.” It’s like we can decrease the importance and pressure, like, “Hey, you know what, my wife and kids aren’t going to leave me. They’ll still be here even if I just scream obscenities at everybody in the room and botch it as badly as one could possibly botch it. My wife and kids will still be there as well my friends.” And so, that is good.
And even simple anchors, Pete. I have a vivid memory of a day that I spent in my consulting career, and this is going to sound like a very first-world problem. I was consulting to a company in northern Italy, and I had parked my car outside of the hotel the morning before I had to go give a critical presentation to the senior leadership at this organization. And I woke up the next morning and the entire square outside of my hotel had been converted to a farmer’s market, and every car that had been in the square that night before had been towed.
And I don’t know if you’ve ever gone through the wonderful experience of trying to navigate the Italian auto impound system as somebody who doesn’t speak Italian, but this was not the way I wanted to start my day before a critical presentation to a big client. And the thing that really got me through it was in that moment going, “You know what, one way or another, at 6:00 o’clock tonight, I’m going to be sitting down, eating dinner, and having a cold beer. And nothing that happens in the next three hours is going to change that. It’s going to be 6:00 o’clock, we’re going to eat our meal, we’re going to have a drink, and we’re going to go on with the day.”
And so, I do think, because our attention can run away from us and get so…it’s like a spotlight. What we focus our attention on, it comes right into the foreground and everything else recedes into the background. A lot of this is about consciously directing that spotlight to, “Okay, what are the things that I need to focus on right now that maybe are getting lost in the glare of where my attention is kind of gravitationally getting pulled?”
Boy, Dane, so much excellence here in terms of what’s not stake in consulting. And that brings me back to some stories where I was new in consulting and making some errors, which was embarrassing for me and the team. And I had an awesome manager who was sharing some perspectives in terms of like, “Hey, well, it’s just work and nobody’s dying. But, yeah, you’ve made some mistakes that kind of hurt our credibility there and so we got to get a plan.”
And so, I appreciated that perspective, like that’s what happened. I was new, I made some mistakes, but no one was dead, which is not true of some professions. You make mistakes, people may die. But I make mistakes in my spreadsheet and it’s just a little annoying and embarrassing.
Cool. So, we talked about when you feel the pressure, your mind can run away from you, you can narrow your focus. And some tools there, we talked about dialing up or down the importance via thinking about what’s at stake, what’s not at stake. Any tips on how we move the levers of uncertainty and volume?
Yeah. And I think your tee up here, which is, “Hey, it’s just PowerPoint. There are some situations where the stakes are life and death.” And that’s often a question that I get when I talk about importance kind of as a standalone topic, it’s like, “Well, what if it really is a life-and-death situation? Is it really going to work to think about what’s not at stake here?” And the answer is, “Not really.”
I think of the equation kind of like a bag of golf clubs or a set of chef’s knives. If you are truly in a high-pressure situation where lives are at stake, you’re probably going to want to focus less on importance and more on uncertainty. Because uncertainty, as human beings, we experience uncertainty in a very similar fashion to physical pain. And Olivia Fox Cabane wrote about this in her great book, The Charisma Myth, that the brain, actually, similar parts of the brain light up under uncertainty as they do under physical pain.
And so, if you look at kind of the evolutionary biology of all of this, the human beings who craved uncertainty, who heard the kind of rustle in the bushes, and were like, “Huh, wonder what that is?” And, yeah, they didn’t tend to do too well. So, most of us are not particularly comfortable with uncertainty. And so, when we are in these peak pressure moments, similar to importance, in peak pressure, the goal with uncertainty is quite straightforward. It’s we want to redirect our attention from what we can’t control to what we can control, and begin to act as soon as humanly possible. Because the second we start to act on uncertainty, the second we start to make progress, that’s when the pressure from uncertainty begins to abate.
And this really got landed for me. I heard a wonderful metaphor from a guy named Martin Reader, who’s an Olympic beach volleyball player. He represented Canada in the 2016 Rio Games. And he talked about how when you’re playing beach volleyball, there is so much that is out of your control. The opponents are out of your control, the officials are out of your control, the crowd is out of your control, the weather is out of your control. You’re literally standing on shifting sands, which is kind of a metaphor for uncertainty, but also a literal thing.
And he said, “The one thing that you can control in volleyball is the serve. When you are standing behind the service line and you have the ball, that’s the one time that you’re in control.” And so, he tells a story about when they had to qualify for the 2016 games, they knew they were going to have to go into Mexico and beat the Mexican team in order to qualify.
And he said, “We knew this was going to be really tough because the Mexican team was a good team. It was going to be a really hostile crowd, which sometimes influences the officiating.” And so, he said, “For six months, my partner and I, we practiced this very non-traditional serve.” And he said, “At a critical moment in the third game, I moved to this complete other spot on the service line, and I served the ball they had no idea was coming for an ace, and that really punched our ticket to Rio, to the Olympics.”
And so, he said, “Since that moment, whenever I find myself in a situation where things are really out of my control, I ask myself, ‘What’s your serve? What is your serve in this situation?’” And, again, I talked about the spotlight and redirecting attention, this, to me, is another one of those great attentional anchors, to go, “Hey, with everything else that’s out of my control, what is my serve in this situation?” And I think one of the things we want to recognize is no matter what the situation is, you might ask yourself that question, go, “I got no serve. This whole thing is out of my control.” There are a couple of things that we always have control over, that are permanent serves for us as human beings.
So, one of them is breathing. No matter what situation you’re in, breathing is a serve. When I start to get my physiology under control, when I move my breathing down into my diaphragm, when I slow it down to five to six breaths a minute, that’s a way that I can start to access certainty and control. You can’t have a racing mind with a calm body. If you can get your body under control, it’s very hard to have a racing mind.
The second thing that we always have control over, that can always be a serve, is perspective. Viktor Frankl, in Man’s Search for Meaning, he talked about having, through his time in the Nazi concentration camps, the Nazis could take pretty much everything. They could take food. They could take clothing. They could take shelter. He said, “The one thing they couldn’t take was my ability to choose to see what I was going through as a meaningful experience.” And he talked about that as the last human freedom. That ability to choose how we are going to look at what we’re going through, that’s another serve that we always have. That’s always within our control. That’s always something that we can act on.
And so, routine is another one. You look at people in sports, before a tennis player serves the ball, what do they do? They have a constant routine that allows them to exert control. So, I do think, when it comes to uncertainty, A, the question, “What’s my serve?” but then, B, having a couple of kind of go-to serves, so to speak, where you go, “These are the things that I’m going to do that are going to serve as beachheads of control under peak pressure,” that can really pay dividends when you’re walking into high-stake situations.
Dane, that is powerful stuff in terms of, that question, “What is my serve?” I think when you really visualize that in terms of, “Literally, what is the equivalent of a ball in my hand that I have the choice of what to do with right now?” that’s huge. And so, your choices in terms of how you interpret and view things, how you breathe, that’s excellent. So, let’s hear about volume then.
Yeah. So, volume is an interesting one because it’s easy to react in a way that seems like it’s going to help that actually ends up hurting – and that’s time management. I think when volume is the dominant thing creating pressure, and I think, frankly, for many of us, volume is the dominant thing creating pressure. When I talk to people in organizations, I do a lot of workshops on this stuff, and one of the questions we’ll ask is, “Okay, what are the things right now that are taking away the fun, keeping you rushing, causing you anxiety?” And, inevitably, the answer is some version of “Not enough time,” or, “Too many priorities,” which are kind of just flipsides of the same thing.
And so, I think when volume is creating pressure, it kind of makes intuitive sense to turn to time management, it’s like, “Okay, the issue is I’ve got too much stuff to do. The solution is I need to become more efficient and get it done. That’s how I’m going to make progress. That’s how I’m going to start to exert control and tamp down uncertainty.” The challenge with time management is that time management is a trap. If you think about people who get really good at time management, what do they get? Do get more volume or less volume? They get more volume.
Oh, because they’re entrusted with, “Hey, great job, Dane. You really crushed that. Here are some more stuff for you.”
Most of us are working in organizations where if you do a really good job, it’s like, “You know what, we’re going to be so efficient that we can shrink our meetings from an hour and a half to an hour. That’s going to open up 1:00 to 2:00 p.m. on my calendar.” The second 1:00 to 2:00 p.m. opens up on your calendar, what happens? Someone is like, boom, calendar invite, like, “I noticed you have a free hour from 1:00 to 2:00. It’d be great if you could join this project kickoff.” It’s like putting up a signal flare that’s like, “Hey, I have some free time.”
And so, the example I always use is there’s this wonderful Dilbert cartoon where Catbert, the consultant, is talking to the manager, the boss, and he says, “Hey, how do you guys reward your high-performers around here?” And the boss says, “Oh, we load them up with work until they become average performers.” And, to me, that’s time management. It’s like digging a hole in the beach. The bigger the hole you dig, the more water is going to rush in there to fill it.
And this is not to crap on time management. Time management is a really important productivity tool but it’s not a solution to pressure, and those are two different things. Time management absolutely helps with productivity, but it doesn’t alleviate pressure because it just allows you to get more done. It actually allows you to increase the volume that you’re kind of faced with.
And so, when we talk about volume, there’s really two imperatives that I kind of start to dig into. The first is, listen, if we are going to choose a high-pressure life, which I suspect most people listening, if you’ve taken the time to opt into a podcast like this one, you are choosing a high-performing life, and that’s going to be accompanied by volume. And so, we have to take care of the physical platform that allows us to handle a high-volume life: that’s sleep, that’s nutrition, that’s movement. So, that stuff has to be there so that we’re not just exhausted all the time.
But the flipside to that is, instead of just managing our time to try to accommodate everything, we have to get ruthless at how we are using that capacity. And that means really hitting the root causes of volume, which are, “What are the tasks that we permit? What are the decisions that we are making on a routine or regular basis? And what are the distractions that are taking us away from the volume that we really should be focused on?”
And so, when I think about productive strategies that actually get at the root causes of volume, they are strategies to hold the line on tasks, “What am I saying yes and no to?”; there are strategies that eliminate decisions, “How do I create rules, principles, that eliminate the number of decisions, or minimize the number of decisions that I have to make on a daily basis?”; and, “How do I put structure in place that is going to allow me to avoid distractions?”
So, those are kind of the core three, and we can dig into any one of those three that you want, but those, to me, are kind of the root of, “How do we actually manage volume as opposed to just accommodate it?”
Well, yeah, I like that that is a nice set of tools that seem to sort of cover the gamut pretty nicely. Boy, we could have a whole episode on them. But maybe give me your favorite tactic amongst those three, like, “This is game-changing and pretty easy for people.”
let’s talk about tasks. And, listen, there’s two reasons that we overwhelm ourselves with tasks, and it really kind of depends on your span of control in the organization. We can overwhelm ourselves with tasks because of tasks we take on ourselves. So, we’re just over-optimistic about what we can accomplish, and so we kind of opt in or we kind of seek out more than we can handle, and that starts to create pressure. We can also accumulate too many tasks because they’re imposed upon us, we get assigned them by our managers or our bosses.
And so, for each of those two streams, and it’s not a binary thing. Usually, it’s some combination of those two. There’s a tactic that I think is worth exploring and trying. So, the first is if you are the kind of person that is just over-optimistic and opts into too many things, I am a huge believer in calendar blocking. And I just think, the fact that we have, all of us, simultaneously a calendar and a to-do list, creates a lot of the challenges that get people to take on too much. Because we look at our calendars, and we go, “Oh, yeah, I have space from 1:00 to 2:00 tomorrow.” But the issue is that our calendars really only show the commitments that we’ve made that involve other people.
The to-do list is basically a parallel calendar, it is a parallel set of commitments to our time, they just happen to not involve other people. It’s work that we need to process independently. And so, I think if you fall into that camp of constantly opting into stuff, and then going, “Oh, crap. Like, I got to get this done on a weekend,” you want to merge your calendar and your to-do list. Like, find time on your calendar for every item on your to-do list, and actually block it so that you have a real representation of all of the things that have a claim on your time before you start making decisions around what else you can take on because, otherwise, you’re just deluding yourselves. And I think that’s where the kind of over-optimism comes from.
So, that, to me, is one very practical way to start to get a more real view of, “What are the tasks that I actually have room to accommodate?” If the tasks are being imposed on you, if it’s more a case of just somebody else, like, “I need this. And I need it by Monday,” I think it’s really uncomfortable for most people, in particular, folks that are a little more junior in organizations, to just say, “Listen, I can’t do that. Like, I don’t have enough time to do that.” That’s often something seen as career-limiting. It’s a little bit of an uncomfortable conversation.
And so, my recommendation on that one is take that out of the binary world of like, “I can do this,” or, “I can’t do it,” and start to use those as jumping off points to have prioritization conversations, “Okay, so you need me to pull this deck together for Monday. All right. Here are the other two things that are on my plate for Monday. Where do you want me to rank this one? Is this the most important of those three? Is this in the middle?”
And we’re not having a kind of like “Me versus you” conversation, where like, “You’re asking me to do something and I’m saying, ‘No, I can’t do it.’” Now, we’re having a conversation together around, “What’s the order that I should be thinking about these things in? What are the ones that are more important or less important?” So, those are kind of two separate roads, I guess, of kind of the same outcome but a little bit different context.
And I don’t want to roleplay this for too long, Dane, but if you’ll indulge me just a smidge. So, if you have that conversation with a manager, director, VP, whomever, someone more senior, and they give you an unsatisfying response of, “Well, hey, they’re all important. They all need to get done,” what do you do then?
And I think this is where we want to be polite, be persistent, it’s like, “Totally agree. Okay, so which one should I do first?” or, “Where do you want me to start?” And I think the ability to continue to have the discussion, “Listen, I have to pick one to do first, and I have to pick one to do last,” that’s where we want to keep driving the nail in.
And, actually, this has come up a few times where people are like, “Well, my manager just won’t have those conversations.” Like, I keep getting responses, like, “Everything is important.” And this is where I think a big part of managing pressure is my ability to come face to face with my own personal power, my ability to connect with self-efficacy, that I have the ability to choose what I am going to tolerate, what I am not going to tolerate.
I think if you have a manager who repeatedly, over time, just says, “Everything is important, and you need to get it all done,” that, to me, is a signal that if you have a good relationship with that person, now is the time for some upward feedback, which is, “Let’s have a conversation around what I really need from you as a manager in order to perform at a high level.” And if that continues, like, to me, who on earth wants to work for someone who refuses to have a productive conversation with them about what’s most important around here?
So, I really do think that the end of that conversation, for me, is like, over time, I have a boss who refuses to help me prioritize my work, get out of dodge. Like, find a better place to work. Find a better manager. That sounds flippant, but I genuinely think that that should be a very basic expectation of a leader, that they can do that.
Certainly. And you’re right, and I think like there may be rare moments where it’s true, everything is important and everything is urgent at the same time. And I think a great manager would be like, “Dane, I’m sorry. This is a terrible week and, unfortunately, it seems like what’s going to be necessary is that you work until midnight several days in a row. It’s unfortunate that we’re here now but we are, and I’d like to figure out how to get you some time off in the next week to make up for it. But, darn it, this is what the reality is on this particular week.” I think that both things can be true, that everything must be done, and your manager could be cool and humane about the implications of that.
Listen, I think that’s a great point, Pete. There are busy periods in every job. If it’s tax season, and you’re an accountant, like, legally, everything has to get done by a certain date. It’s not like there’s a lot of wiggle room there. We got to do everybody’s taxes by the time they need to file them. So, I totally agree with you, and I think the main thing for me is it becomes a conversation.
So, what I liked about you just laid out there is, “I’m having a discussion as a manager to paint a really clear picture here of this is a period in time in which we’re going to be asking a lot of you. Here are the commitments that I’m making around that, that this is going to be time-bound, that I’m going to work with you productively to find some time to recover, and that I see and appreciate the extra effort that you’re putting in here. It actually matters.”
That, to me, is very different than a leader who simply says, like, “Everything is important. Get it all done on Monday and have it on my desk.” So, I totally agree that those things can co-exist, for sure.
Well, so while we’re talking still on the managing pressure, if it’s, I guess, maybe the problem side of things, if you will. You have a very compelling teaser bullet for your book, “We can reduce tension, sleep better, and have more energy so that you can meet challenges head-on.” It sounds like we’ve figured out a few levers for some of that. But, tell me, any other pro tips on the sleeping better and enhancing energy side of things?
Yeah, I think the…and this comes from the subtitle of the book, which is, “Why Pressure Isn’t the Problem, It’s the Solution.” I think the thing that we want to recognize about pressure is that, really, pressure is just a word that we use to label a ball of energy. Pressure is energy. When you look at, physiologically, what happens to our body under pressure – it’s adrenaline, it’s cortisol, it’s muscle tension, it’s faster blood flow, more oxygen. Like, it’s just energy.
And I think that energy can be productive if it’s channeled appropriately. Certainly, many of us who have had kids, what is it that allows you to be an empathetic and patient human being on no sleep when you feel like you’re screwing everything up? It’s the energy that accompanies the pressure that you feel. And so, I think pressure can be a source of energy if it is channeled appropriately.
And so, if we look at a lot of the tactics that we’ve been talking about, it’s like, “Okay, how do I take this kind of raw seething energy and actually use it in a direction that is a little bit more productive?” And I’ll tell you, when it comes to the sleep part, so sleep better, I do think because pressure is energy, if we are carrying a ton of that around, it does make the sleep thing a little bit more difficult. And so, our ability to pulse to kind of channel and allow the energy from pressure to help us perform, but then to be able to get into a state where the energy dissipates, I think that’s really important.
And this, to me, goes to the flipside of what we were talking about with uncertainty. So, we talked a lot in uncertainty around, “How do I take direct action to eliminate uncertainty?” That’s the whole notion of finding your serve. I actually think one of the failure modes that high-performers get into is because direct action can be so effective in peak pressure moments, it becomes the default mode of action. We try to just take action on everything. And one of the certainties of life is that we cannot eliminate all uncertainty. We are all on our way to both triumphs and tragedies and everything in between that we cannot foresee, we cannot predict, we cannot prevent.
And so, a big part of the sleep better at night for me is we got to recognize, when it comes to uncertainty, that, yes, we need to act to tame uncertainty where we can, we also have to be able to get to a place where we can embrace the uncertainty that we can’t tame. And for that, that’s really a bit of a mindset thing. And it’s a mindset, as I talk to people that are really good at this, who just seem to be able to come to peace with the fact that there is uncertainty, it’s really about cultivating two things.
The first is, “I have to get to a place where I accept that the future is both unknown and unknowable. I have to get to a place where I can accept that I cannot control the future no matter how hard I try.” And, actually, a lot of the stories that I heard from high-performers were like about bitter battles that eventually reconcile with them, realize that they couldn’t control everything.
But paired with that belief is it almost feels like a bit of a paradox but we have to pair that belief that the future is uncertain and unknowable with the belief that everything will work out as it should in the end. And that belief is really about having a patient faith in the future. And I think it’s that one in particular that, A, is harder to get to in a period like COVID, and, B, is the one that actually allows you, if you go right back to the question, that’s what allows me to get to sleep at night, is I can get genuinely to a place where I go, “At the end of the day, things will work out.”
And I think that the critical distinction here, for me, on this one, and I get pushed a lot on this one, both by people who read early drafts of the book and people whose opinion I really trust, who said, “Listen, things don’t always work out.” And that’s true. There are lots of situations where we don’t get the Hollywood redemptive ending, we don’t get the outcome that we wanted, and, yet, I talked to hundreds of people about the most pressure they’ve ever been under, and without fail, they talk about how the situations worked out.
They talked about the fact that they learned something about themselves that was really useful later on. They built confidence that they never had before. It forced them to make a tough decision that they’ve been delaying. It brought them closer to other people. It uncovered an inner strength that they weren’t aware of. Like, they inevitably talk about how, even if it didn’t go the way they expected, it worked out.
And so, I think the really important part for me here is we have to get to a place where we don’t lose faith that things will work out in the end, while being open to being surprised by how they work out. Like, opening ourselves up to the fact that they might work out a little bit differently. And so, I think that that’s what makes uncertainty so challenging, Pete, is it’s this double-edged sword of, “I got to find my serve and act aggressively where I can to limit uncertainty, and I’ve got to get to this place where I go, ‘I can’t control everything and that’s okay because it’s going to work out the way it should in the end.’” That’s where the ability to kind of sleep a little better at night comes from.
Yeah. Well, thank you. That’s powerful stuff. And, now, I would like to hear, when it comes to pressure being the solution, you mentioned more records are broken at the Olympics than anywhere else and you said it’s because of the pressure. You actually worked with Olympians so you would know. I guess, my first thought was, “Was it because of the pressure or was it because they’ve precisely timed their training to peak at this moment when the gold is on the line?” And so, I guess there’s probably both are drivers. But, tell us, how can we, in a pressure-filled moment, do extraordinary exceptional things above and beyond what we’re capable of during normal circumstances?
Yeah, I think you kind of got there. It is a bit of an and. I think when you’re trying to be the absolute best in history at something, it has to be a combination of both, “I have trained in a way that I am going to be at my peak when it matters most, and I have to be able to take advantage of the energy that is going to accompany performing on the Olympic stage. It is just a different thing than other stages. There is a different level of scrutiny. There’s a different level of importance. There is a different level of volume.”
So, when you talk to elite athletes, they will talk about the pressure that accompanies an Olympic performance. And I think this is one of the misconceptions that some people have about pressure, which is that getting “good at pressure” is about eliminating that feeling of profound discomfort that accompanies pressure. That’s not the case. You talk to anybody, I don’t care who they are, they will tell you that this stuff is unbelievably uncomfortable.
Wayne Halliwell, who’s a great sport psych up in Canada here, he talks about this notion that it’s not about getting rid of the butterflies. It’s about getting them to fly in formation. Pressure is uncomfortable. When we are in peak pressure moments, it is not a place that is particularly enjoyable. So many Olympians I talked to will talk about the 10 minutes, the 30 minutes before they’re going, “Why do I do this? Why do I put myself through this?” Like, they’re fantasizing about just escaping from the pool.
It’s an uncomfortable experience and the energy that makes it so uncomfortable, “If I can get control over how am I framing this from an important perspective? Am I able to both see that this matters to me and recognize that this isn’t a referendum on my life? Like, this doesn’t determine whether I’m a failure as a person or not. Can I take direct action? Do I feel like I’ve done everything I can to control what I can control? And have I got myself to a place where I can accept that there is uncertainty that I can’t tame, that I might fall, that a competitor might just happen to peak that day?”
“And if I ruthlessly control the volume that could distract me from my performance, have I cleared out all the distractions that could take me away from…? When I’ve done those three things, that’s what gets me in a position where the butterflies can fly in formation. I still feel that way but I go in with confidence as opposed to overwhelm,” and that’s when things kind of click when we listen to people describe those experiences.
Beautiful. And so then, if we’re not getting on an Olympic stage, but we’re feeling the pressure, are there any particular actions or practices or reframes that are super effective in terms of accessing the superpowers?
So, I said a little earlier, the attention is like a spotlight. I think the best way to think about getting good at pressure is to think about attentional control, which is, at the end of the day, my ability to direct that spotlight, to not have the spotlight just direct me, like I’m just kind of beholden to whatever kind of catches my attention, and I can’t act on it, when we train that ability to direct the spotlight of our attention, that’s when we start getting good at pressure.
And, as we discussed, sometimes that is about I got to put the spotlight on, “Why does this really matter to me?” Other times I got to direct the spotlight to, “What’s actually not important about this to me?” Sometimes I got to direct the spotlight to, “What can I control? What’s my serve?” Other times, I got to direct the spotlight to, “What is the uncertainty that I can’t tame, and the fact that, at the end of the day, this is going to work out?”
So, that attentional control is really at the heart of this for me. And the best way to redirect the spotlight is questions. Questions are attentional anchors. So, peppered throughout the book are just, “What are the questions that I’ve heard from people that really work for me but also work for others?” So, those are questions like, “What’s not at stake? What’s my serve in this situation? What’s my average? What can I count on here?”
We want to have our own bank of, “What are the little attentional cues that work for me personally to direct that spotlight in a way that’s productive, to get me anchored on something that’s going to actually help under pressure, as oppose to lead me down the garden path?” And so, my most kind of practical advice for listeners is to start to know, use the ones that I’ve kind of just said as a starter list, but gather the questions as you go that help you when you’re moving into your peak pressure moments, because those questions are like little nuggets of gold. The little attentional anchors that put you at your best, those are the things that you want to carry and start to embed in your routines as you’re heading into high-pressure situations.
That’s beautiful. I love those questions and the notion of training the ability to direct the spotlight of your attention, and questions are huge for that. Some of my other favorites are, “What’s great about this? And what’s one thing I can do to make this better?” We had Dr. Ellen Reed talk about relentless solution focus with that kind of question, and it’s beautiful.
And, also, the phrase training the ability to direct the spotlight of your attention. That sounds like what mindfulness meditation practices do. Any thoughts on those?
Yeah, 100%. I think mindfulness meditation is like going to the gym. Every time your attention wanders and you bring it back to center, you’re practicing attentional control. So yeah, absolutely. That is a very related practice and it’s one that can 100% enhance your ability to do this under pressure.
So much good stuff. Thank you Dane.